Kalani Robb is on a short list of legitimate surfing superstars. His surfing inspired—and defined—an entire generation of progressive surfers. For much of his career he was heralded as the next Kelly Slater. But then, at 33, his career ended. He slipped off the radar into relative obscurity. Is his a cautionary tale of potential unrealized, or is this just a hiatus in what could still be a long and illustrious career?
What happened to Kalani Robb?
I work an office job now. Nine to five. I’m living in Anaheim, California, at the moment with my wife and my little baby. The last time I was doing anything in surfing was when I was riding for Hurley two years ago. They were my last contract with any of the real surf brands. That was the last time I was being paid to be a pro surfer.
So did you take that as the end of your pro-surfing career?
I kind of got a little discouraged. I had a really good thing going with them and I thought I was doing a good job. I was getting a lot of video exposure and just doing the photo thing. So when they didn’t re-sign me, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I’m a pro surfer, you know? In a spoiled way I’ve always had everything given to me. My agent would look for sponsors for me and then I would be like, “OK, that’s a good fit for me. I’ll go there.” So I think in that way I’ve never really had to try to look for sponsors. I’m really bad at going, “Hey, would you sponsor me?” I’m terrible at that. So that’s a huge problem for me. From there it just went downhill. Losing Hurley and then my other sponsors following…they were my stamp of approval. I kind of just lost control of everything. I guess I lost the momentum and after that I got discouraged. I let that affect me and my surfing and I was just like, “Well, I suck, and if I suck, then I’m out of here.”
So you got a job?
I was doing some Hollywood stuff, some acting, but that’s not my thing. I’m stoked that I tried it just to see what kind of world that was. I’m stoked I did a movie, but there’s no way I want to be any part of that. That’s just not my zone, you know? So I just got a job. I work in the marketing department for a genetics company. I help with their foundation—the Mauli Ola Foundation—and that’s kind of where I ended up.
That must have been quite an adjustment.
Sitting behind a desk all day and having to wake up at 5 a.m. to surf is hard. I have good surfs in the morning and go, “Wow, this is the best part of my day. Shit, this is what I’m best at.” There’s nothing I’m better at on this earth than surfing, and doing what I’ve always done. I’ve been groomed for this all my life. I’m stoked about doing other stuff but it’s kind of weird to me, especially now, being on this Momentum reunion trip, and being with all the boys again. I’ve been out of touch with all the boys because I stepped off the Ferris wheel, and everyone else is still going. Everyone is going around the world and I’m staying in one place. This is the first time I’ve been back with the group, back with the pack. This is my group. I’ve been with this pack of surfers my whole life.
How much of the blame do you place on yourself?
I blame it all on myself. There’s really no one else to blame. I know that I made some errors. I could have made a smoother transition from being a Tour surfer and letting my sponsors know that’s what I was going to do. Instead I just did it on a whim, but I figured if I didn’t do it on a whim then everyone would convince me not to leave the Tour. I parted ways with my agent. He was doing a great job, but I didn’t want to make him have to explain to everybody what I was doing. I didn’t want my decision to be on his record. I think that was a big mistake.
Why did you leave the Tour?
There was a lot of shit leading up to the decision, but I remember the exact moment I decided it was over. I was in Japan and I was in a heat against Marcelo Nunes. I had been trying really hard, but I was on the fence because there were a couple weird decisions that went against me that year. We were having a contest at this place called Baby Malibu or something and it was under a bridge. I was ahead and he needed the score. So what happened was he caught this wave and did a little mini air or whatever and landed it, and his boys were freaking out and cheering. I’m pretty sure they knew that the judges couldn’t see the air because the bridge’s giant cement pillars were blocking the view. So they freaked out so that the judges were like, “Oh wow, that must have been something sick.” They gave him the score and I was out. I literally went, “Fuck it. I’m over this.” I flew all the way over to Japan and I made this my whole career—my livelihood—and I just lost because they couldn’t see. I just buckled. I’ve felt really bad in my life, but I remember that like it was yesterday. I don’t even like thinking about that feeling.
How did you know they couldn’t see the air?
The live webcast camera was in the same tower as the judges. The live webcast didn’t see it, so I know the judges didn’t see it. Luke Egan and Kelly [Slater] were right there. I saw Kelly’s face when I walked up. I couldn’t really hear the score, but I could see in his face that I’d lost. Kelly just told me, “Oh man, you got totally robbed.” I’d had Luke Egan and the best surfer of all time come and tell me that I didn’t lose that heat, and then I had five donkeys telling me I did. That’s what competitive surfing comes down to? It’s too fucked up. It’s too gnarly. I couldn’t deal with it. So I basically was like, “I quit. I’m over it.” I surfed a couple more contests that year, but I was just burning myself even more because I wasn’t trying. I really was disgusted with that whole thing.
Being in the position that you’re in now—without a sponsor and without a surf career—do you regret following through on that feeling?
I don’t know. I mean I’ve had so many interesting things happen to me since then. I mean, my cameo in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was almost bigger than my whole surfing career. But I guess I do regret it in a way because my life was pretty damn easy. And I know that now. I should have probably sucked it up and went and done it, but I had been sucking it up for a long time and I buckled.
What do you think you could have done differently?
I look at guys like Rob Machado—he made the transition perfectly. I fucked up the transition. There was something I did wrong. I can kind of see it in what Bobby [Martinez] is doing now, which I hope he doesn’t do. My rebelliousness…my attitude was wrong. I did it way too well. I should have made that an image thing, but packaged it so that it was usable to the brands. Not the real McCoy. But shit, that might be what makes me even better in the future. I was real.
You were heralded as “The Next Kelly Slater,” but you never reached that level. When you look back on your career, do you consider it a success?
It was a success for me in different chapters of my life. When I was younger I aspired to be Mark Occhilupo and Ronnie Burns and travel the world and meet all the surfers and surf with them and just be a pro surfer. I far exceeded what I thought I was going to do. I never even dreamed any of that, so yeah, I’m definitely stoked on one hand. I would have never known I was going to be number five in the world and have my own signature trunks, signature pad, signature leash, and signature board. Everyone knows me, you know what I mean? I’m still blown away to this day. I still go to these different places and people recognize me. It’s kind of cool, you know? But as for other people’s expectations…they wanted me to be the next Slater, but I wasn’t ever interested in being Kelly Slater. I just love surfing. Being the next Slater didn’t matter to me. I know Kelly’s the best. He’s always going to be the best to me. But I really got a kick out of people going, “Oh, that’s the next Kelly Slater. That’s that guy.” I don’t know why but I have this weird fetish, I thought that being the next Kelly Slater was way fucking cooler than being Kelly Slater. I thought it was cooler to just have people be like, “That’s the guy” and not have to actually be the guy.
You preferred being the underdog.
Yeah, and I don’t want to sound lazy—I’m not lazy—I just really thought that was cool. Michael Jordan for instance. He’s the best, OK? He’s the best spokesman. He’s by the book. He’s this clean-cut guy, right? That’s Kelly. He’s the perfect representative for this sport. I think he’s the ultimate. Surfers are super lucky to have that guy represent us—being that amazing in the water and being the person he is, and being that professional. I’m not that person. Kelly’s our Jordan. I didn’t want to be Jordan. I wanted to be Allen Iverson. I wanted to be LeBron. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be edgier. I wanted to be that ripper behind the scenes. I just went a little too extreme, a little too underground.
How does that make you feel? The fact that your peers still have thriving careers and you don’t—you’re stuck behind a desk?
Um, I feel like I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk anymore. I feel like, OK, let me back in and I’ll do what I have to do.
So hypothetically speaking, if somebody came in with the right number and said, “You have to go and slog it out in the ’QS and get on the World Tour to make this happen.” Would that be OK?
I mean if people wanted me to do that. That’s fine. But I don’t really know if people would want me to do that anymore. I could do it, though. If I went on the ’QS right now I don’t have any doubt that I could make it, no problem. But let’s all be honest, why I’m famous, why everyone knows me, is not because I went and surfed a 25-minute heat once a day for four days. That’s not what made me famous. I knew what made me famous because everyone told me, “You’re my favorite surfer because of your style. I love that air that you did in that video. Oh I really loved you in Momentum.” No one ever came up to me and was like, “Oh your heat was fuckin’ rad, man, you ripped that thing! 8.5!”
Who gives a shit? But if I had to do it, yeah, I would go back on Tour. Because this is the best thing I do. I realize that now. Surfing is the best thing I do on earth. I’m going to get a little bit too old and then I’m going to be done, but I’m 35 now. All my peers are still on Tour, all the best guys are my age right now.
People probably think of you as older than you actually are because you’ve been associated with the Momentum Generation your whole life.
Totally. I don’t think a lot of people realize that I’m actually Mick, Taj, Andy, and Bruce’s age. That’s my generation. I went with the group five years ahead of my age. You can see it in all the videos—I’m the kid of the group. It’s an interesting thing, really, because I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I think they think, “Oh he’s part of the Momentum Generation. Those guys are 40.”
You’re almost stuck between generations…
Very much so, and I think I’m the only one. People said I was the new Kelly Slater so I ran out ahead of the pack. Boom. Gone. And I just so happened to be on the coattails of the gnarliest surfer of all time and that’s who I’ve been surfing with until these last few years—my whole life.
How would you feel if this is indeed the end of your surf career?
I like living a normal life. I like being planted and grounded a little bit. That’s sort of why I backed off the Tour because I wanted to be a little bit more stable. Traveling around for so long is gnarly. But I guess I’ll say it like this: I liked it more than what I’m doing now. Let’s just say that. But I do feel like, yeah, I wore the Superman cape all my life and suddenly I went back to being Clark Kent. I put the glasses on and worked behind a desk. But I’m proud of myself because I don’t have any problem with it. I’ve gotten past it. If I don’t get any sponsors I will be fine. But…no, I guess I wouldn’t be fine. I would be kind of bummed still, because surfing is the best thing I do. Like I said, I’m proud that I can put on the outfits and do what I gotta do. But I just think it would be a waste of my talents.